Before sending her 6-year-old son, Charlie, off to day school in September, Brenda Hite wondered if she’d made the right decision. Neither Hite nor her husband, Tom, are Jewish, but the public school options in their hometown of Akron, Ohio, didn’t enthrall them. So they applied to the local Lippman School, which impressed the Hites with its new global perspective and its energetic and experienced educators.
“Once we learned more about the Jewish culture and religion, and how steeped everything is in Old World values, the Lippman School became very attractive to us,” said Hite, who, like her husband, grew up in a Christian household. Also, she said, “It didn’t feel like Charlie would get the individualized attention at a public school that he would receive at Lippman.”
“It was kind of a leap,” admits Hite. “But after the first day, our son was all smiles,” she said, adding that Charlie adores the school’s weekly Shabbat celebrations.
The Lippman School is engaged in an experiment of sorts among unaffiliated community day schools — one that may soon be replicated in several other shrinking Jewish communities. For schools in regions with declining Jewish populations, attracting families like the Hites could be just the buoy needed to stay afloat.
“Many day schools are valued because they offer what is perceived to be a high-quality education, and that’s not limited in appeal to Jews alone,” said Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer at the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), an organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish education. Also, as with parochial Catholic schools, whose non-Catholic enrollment has increased in recent decades, the education at Jewish schools is “often offered at a price that is less than non-sectarian schools,” Woocher said. In Lippman’s case, that’s $7,500 annually.
But the solution runs the risk of polarizing Jewish families, according to Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. “It’s an approach loaded with opportunities but also fraught with potential dilemmas,” such as how to handle kosher food policy and celebrations of Christmas, as well as interfaith dating among older children, he said. “[However] we do not want a vibrant Jewish education to be only in big city centers. We need Jewish education to be a viable option all over America.”
The strategy could also potentially backfire if Jewish families flee, fearing dilution of Jewish content and experience, or that their donated dollars are going to non-Jewish causes. At Lippman, for example, financial aid is available for both Jews and non-Jews, and while specific dollars go toward supporting Judaic studies programs, local Federation money supports the entire school.
What’s more, admitting non-Jewish students to Jewish day schools brings up serious philosophical questions about the nature and purpose of Jewish education. Jewish day schools have always seen themselves as educating the next crop of Jewish leaders in order to reverse the tide of assimilation. By bringing non-Jews into the mix, they might be hindering their own cause.
“Here’s what you need to think about: Can schools that take in non-Jews maintain their core Jewish identity and mission over the long term? In the beginning they might, but what happens over the long term? Does that get diminished?” said Amy Katz, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.